While the public’s attention has been conveniently fixed on the ups and downs of the COVID-19 era, two of the most anxiously awaited pieces of transformational legislation—the Registration of Titles (Amendment) Act and the Registration of Titles Cadastral Mapping and Tenure Clarification (Special Provisions) (Amendment) Act 2020— have been winding their way through Parliament.
Having been passed in the House of Representatives on April 28, the Bills were tabled in the Senate on Friday, May 1, and were eventually debated and approved last Friday, after an unexpectedly long debate.
Land reform has been such an integral issue when it comes to politics in Jamaica, that it is not surprising that during Friday’s debate both sides found ways claiming the achievement.
Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation (MEGJC), Daryl Vaz, who piloted the Bills over the two sittings in the House of Representatives with virtually no opposition, made the point that in 2016, Prime Minister Andrew Holness had acknowledged the importance of land tenure, when he stated that:
“We want every Jamaican to have a vested interest in building Jamaica. In order to build a strong economy and improve the quality of lives, we must give our citizens ownership, whenever possible.”
Vaz noted that Holness had insisted that, “titling for Jamaica is an important initiative, aimed at empowering Jamaicans with a renewed sense of ownership and pride in Jamaica”.
“Mr Speaker, further to the prime minister’s statement, it is the view of the Government of Jamaica that these Bills are the tools that can be used to liberate land, enhance the formal economy and change the fate of the majority of those we represent, (who are) long denied the opportunities of ownership,” Vaz noted.
It was a point that was not wasted on Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith, who, on Friday, made it the basis of her contribution to the debate that the prime minister had stated that land titling was an important initiative in empowering Jamaicans with a renewed sense of ownership and pride in Jamaica.
Johnson Smith, who is also Leader of Government Business in the Senate, added that pursuant to that vision was the understanding that the Government has produced the two Bills, “as tools to liberate land, to enhance the formal economy and to change the fate of the majority of people who fail to be able to use land to which they know they are entitled.
“They have long been denied the opportunity of ownership, and it is in this context and knowing that these outcomes are also the goals of the Opposition, that I commend the Bills to this honourable Senate,” she stated prior to the expected unanimous “yes” vote.
However, as is expected in these pre-election debates, the Opposition wasn’t prepared to take that lying down and its spokesman on Land and Housing, Senator Sophia Fraser Binns, responded in kind.
She welcomed the Bills, noting that “everybody I know wants to own a piece of land, but the processes that exist are such a deterrent”.
“It (the Act) is something that I think all Jamaicans must rally around, because land is such an important part of who we are as a people,” she said.
However, she argued that the tabling of the two Bills was not the full story of how the land issues have been dealt with under successive administrations, but the culmination of a process which started long ago.
“Land reformation and all the legislation, or most of the legislation which impact ownership have usually been promulgated by a People’s National Party Government,” Fraser Binns insisted.
The obvious pride of senators being part of such a major development like this, and the passion about being party of the historical and economic importance led to an extensive debate lasting several hours, but did not shake their commitment to support the Bills, which were easily passed and have now been sent back to the House of Representatives for final approval next week, before obtaining the governor general’s signature and being gazetted.
However, there is no doubt that the assimilation of the extent to which the provisions of these Bills will affect how land is dealt with in Jamaica in the future, will certainly require a very effective public education programme to fully inform the nation on what they mean.
For example, the Registration of Titles Cadastral Mapping and Tenure Clarification Act will address two basic and critical issues: (1) The names of large numbers of persons occupying land are not on the title, sometimes for generations; and, (2), the need to modernise, as well as enhance administrative structures to simplify processes and reduce costs.
As Vaz explained in his introduction to the debate in the House of Representatives on June 28:
“Along with those issues, there are also public governance concerns in relation to disproportionately high staff costs for related project costs and the implications with respect to feasibility and sustainability and the need to simplify procedures and reduce costs for the lodging of caveats.”
However, he maintained that the desired outcomes include increased security of tenure and a more systematic land titling system.
The Acts will give effect to: implementation of an adjudication-centred and -driven process for proving ownership of land; separate processes of planning and subdivision approval from that of the issuing of titles under the Registration of Cadastral Mapping and Tenure Clarification (Special Provisions Act; provide for the full operations of the Land Administration and Management Programme (LAMP) processes, including the adjudication processes which will fall under the responsibility of the CEO of the National Land Agency; and amend the Registration of Titles Cadastral Mapping and Tenure Clarification (Special Provisions) Regulations to give effect to the changes that are being made to the Act.
The issue of both Houses of Parliament holding virtual meetings since the emergence of the COVID-19 threat is certainly a major contention, which has to be dealt with urgently.
Whatever is said about veteran MP Everald Warmington’s approach to the business of the House of Representatives, the fact is that he is usually correct in his interpretation of the Standing Orders.
His interventions, which are sometimes considered untimely or inappropriate, are often necessary to remind the members that there are Standing Orders, or rules to be followed. For example, why would House Committees consider it appropriate to go ahead with virtual meetings, without consider the consent of the Standing Orders.
Last week Warmington, a junior minister in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation and MP for St Catherine South Western, not only threatened to withdraw from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which he insists is meeting without consent, but also suggested to his colleagues that instead of dealing only with the issues arising from the digital issue, there is need for a comprehensive review of all the Standing Orders to ensure that they keep apace of new developments.
Again he seems to be on the right track, because all the House of Representatives needs to do is to follow the example of the Senate, led by its President Senator Thomas Tavares-Finson, and have the issue of the constitutionality of these meetings addressed. However, the House went ahead with the meetings without any proper consultation about the constitutionality of such meetings.
The Senate’s Standing Orders Committee, unlike the House’s Standing Orders, has seen to the need for virtual committee meetings for it committee, and is now looking at the possibility of virtual meetings of the entire Senate. But, as Tavares-Finson says, legal advice on the constitutionality of virtual meetings of the entire house is needed.
“Once we recognised that we were in a changed environment, the Standing Orders Committee, which was in the process of reviewing the Standing Orders anyway, we were about a little over a third of the way, took on the question as to whether committees of the Senate could meet virtually. Once we determined that the Standing Orders could permit that we sought, by way of a motion in the Senate, authority to keep our Standing Orders Committee meetings virtually; which is what we have been doing.
“Having done that, we then move to amend the Standing Orders to specifically allow it, and that is where we have reached now. So once we have completed the drafting of that amendment, it will be put to the Senate to adapt in the Standing Orders.
“Having done that we will begin this week to look at the question, as to whether or not the Constitution of Jamaica and the Standing Orders would allow regular meetings of the (full) Senate to be done virtually.
However, Tavares-Finson said that virtual meetings of either House is a “stormy issue”. He said that while it is clear that committee meetings can be held, the advice of the attorney general will have to be sought, regarding whether meetings of the Senate or the House of Representatives is constitutional.
The questions is what is the House Committee or its Standing Orders Committee doing about the issue?
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